Harvest 2015 begins and sounds alarm bells about yields

Today we welcomed into the cellar the first fruit of 2015: eight bins of Viognier from Fralich Vineyard, for our Patelin de Tablas Blanc.  And with that, the 2015 harvest is underway:

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Things look like they're moving pretty fast now, particularly after this past weekend saw temperatures soar into the low 100's both days.  It's cooled down since, but we're sampling most of the vineyards that we're expecting Syrah and Viognier from for Patelin and Patelin Blanc, and doing a first systematic pass through the same varieties in our own vineyard.  We'll get a little more fruit in tomorrow, then take a break to bottle the 2013 Esprit de Tablas before getting back at it next week.

It is wonderful to have the smell of new fruit in the cellar, particularly Viognier, which is as aromatic when it's newly picked as it is in the glass: honey and peaches and spice. And the fruit looked good.  But we were expecting something more like 15 bins today than the 8 we received. 

We expected that crop levels would be light in this fourth year of drought, and we know that some of the earlier grapes (notably Syrah and Viognier) were flowering during our unusually cool, breezy May.  These aren't ideal flowering conditions, and we've seen evidence of shatter in our own vineyard and from our expeditions to the vineyards we source from for Patelin.  But we were all taken by surprise by just how light this first pick turned out to be.

It is something of a maxim in vineyard analysis that when you see evidence of yields being light, they end up even lighter than you were thinking, while when you see evidence of heavier yields it ends up being even heavier than you expect.  And we have been seeing other evidence that yields will be light, from observations of lower cluster counts and smaller clusters to relatively high sugars and relatively high acids in our samples.  Perhaps less intuitively, further evidence is provided by the fact that the vines look notably healthy, when with heavier yields you would expect to see more signs of stress. 

So, I've been steeling myself for this news.  And with the Patelin, we have options; we have handshake agreements with several local vineyards that if we realize that we're light during harvest, they'll find some fruit for us.  We may not be able to make up all the difference, but we can bridge the gap a bit.  Those phone calls started this morning.

The estate vineyard, however, doesn't offer this recourse.  If we end up light, we just make less wine.  It's likely only another week before we find out the extent to which that will be true.

First day of harvest 2015 sign edited


Coming (soon) to Fruition

By Chelsea Franchi

Anticipation of harvest is a primal feeling.  It's a dichotomous sensation made up of a humming excitement, a nervousness that simmers just below the surface, and a light touch of hysteria.  We're anxious for the first fruit of harvest to come in, while at the same time, we're hoping we can push it off for a little bit longer.  By all accounts, it looks as though harvest from our property will commence early September - but, as this is agriculture and Mother Nature is at the helm, that's nothing more than our best guess.

In preparation for this epic time of year, all the members of the vineyard and cellar crew are drinking up time with their loved ones as though every second is a fleeting, delicious drop.  It's fortunate we have a team that gets along, as we'll be seeing their faces far more than those of our chosen partners in the months to come.  Weekend plans are a luxury afforded to the time before and after harvest, but not during.  Currently, we're relishing the feeling of getting into our cars dry and comfortable, after a work shift that lasts eight hours.  All of that will be changing in the coming weeks, when our horizon will look more like this:

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Our days are about to be filled with the whine of the must pump, the whir and tumble of the de-stemmer, and the rattle of the sorting table, all overlaid by the constant thumping music that was chosen by whoever arrived first and/or was thick-skinned enough to endure the inevitable complaints about their music selection from everyone around them (unless it's Thursday, because on Thursdays, we listen to R. Kelly and there can be no complaints.  Well, there can be complaints, but no one will listen.  They're about to be filled with wet heat and the sharp sting of carbon dioxide, both byproducts of fruit fermenting in tank and the deepest inhalations our lungs can handle every time we walk past the rosé tanks (I'm so looking forward to that smell!)  They're about to be filled with the most vibrant and ever-evolving selection of colors: from the bubble gum pink of counoise to the ox-blood red of syrah, from the electric green stems at the beginning of harvest to the golden, crackly leaves toward the end.  Harvest season is a true sensory overload - made even more overwhelming because all participants are exhausted in every sense of the word.

This job is unlike any other that I know of.  Yes, we work ourselves into the ground, but we do it with a common goal of making wines we're all undeniably proud of.  The team we've built shares the delight that's earned from crafting a product with one's own hands.  And there are times, too, when our job is just the way Hollywood portrays it.  There are long lunches on the crush pad, made from ingredients that were sourced from the property and slow cooked under the percipient eye of our Executive Winemaker/Vineyard Manager/Fearless Leader, Neil Collins, who just so happened to be a chef before turning his attention to the wine world.  These lunches are masterfully paired with beautiful wines, giving us a chance to remember, in the middle of the chaos, why it is that we do what we do.

For now, I plan on savoring my post-work gym routine (that's a laughable goal during harvest), my quiet meals at home with my husband, raucous weekends with friends and family, and the primal thrill I feel deep in my bones in anticipation of what's to come:

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Bring it on.


Notes from the Cellar: Blending the 2014 Vintage

By Chelsea Franchi

Here at Tablas Creek, when we sit down to decide on blends for the year, it's a big event.  At this point, a lot of work has been put into these wines and it's critical we bring our best to the blending table to ensure the wines show their best once in bottle.  Each and every wine we produce at Tablas Creek is created through a process we call "palate blending" - in which we taste every individual lot of wine in the cellar and blend it with other lots we believe to be complementary.  This is why the blends change on all of our wines from year to year.  Sometimes dramatically, sometimes not.

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To most, being forced to sit down and taste wines sounds like a dream (it is), but it's more than that.  During harvest, after everything is hand-picked by our detail-oriented and outrageously skilled vineyard crew, we ferment and age each pick separately.  This process is a lot more work (and takes up a lot more space in the cellar) but it allows us more creativity when it comes time to blend by giving us more options to choose from.  This year, we had 52 separate lots of reds to taste and 25 lots of white wines.  While I'm aware that tasting through these wines is a much more enjoyable task than, say, a four hour board meeting, there's a decent amount of pressure involved.  It's important to be fully present and aware for every single one of the 77 wines - personally, I have to keep detailed notes to compel (trick?) myself to stay focused.  My notes may include observations or feelings about the aroma, the palate, the structure (front, mid, finish), and anything I find striking or unusual.  The added benefit to this strategy is that I have reference notes when we're discussing the wines later (read: after tasting 77 wines; "it's lunch time, yes?")  Neil, on the other hand, will only write down a word or two about a handful of wines during the entire tasting, but when we deliberate over the wines days later, he can still recall, without fail, notes and nuances of each wine we tasted.  I'm not envious, I'm just... no, scratch that.  I'm envious.

We begin in the cellar.  For each individual lot, we pull an accurate composite of the wine.  So for instance, if we have a Grenache lot housed in a 132 gallon puncheon and a 60 gallon barrel, we need to make sure the sample we pull is 69% from the puncheon and 31% from the barrel.  This process can feel pretty tedious when you've got a single lot that's being aged in 19 barrels ("we couldn't have just put that together in a tank, huh?") but we prefer this method as it gives us a truer glimpse of the lot as a whole.  Later, when we're physically blending, we can barrel-select what we want in each specific wine, but for preliminary evaluation, we're looking at general character.

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"Okay, now pull 3 milliliters from each of these barrels"

Once the composites have been pulled, we set up in the conference room.  We'll typically pour a flight of four wines, taste them all, and then give them a numerical rating from 1-3.  A score of one means the wine is exceptional - it carries power and finesse in equal measure and has a ripeness that is tempered by balance.  These lots are the first to be set aside for Panoplie and Esprit when we start the blending process.  A score of two communicates that the wine is nice, but it's not going to be haunting your dreams.  Perhaps it would if it had a little more fullness on the mid-palate.  Maybe there's not quite enough acid on the finish.  Whatever the case, it's just not a one.  A score of three means the wine needs some work.  Usually, a wine is given this score because it's still fermenting and is cloudy, sprizty or sweet (or perhaps all three).  Reduction (the opposite of oxidation - cases where the wine needs oxygen) is another common culprit of wines given this score.  Sometimes we can work on these wines a little bit before starting the blending trials, and other times, it's necessary to simply imagine what the wine will be like after it's "fixed".  That's what makes us professionals, I've been told.

When everyone at the table has had a chance to smell, taste, spit, annotate and score each of the four wines, we go around the table and everyone shares their notes and their scores.  And so forth, through each flight, though typically something like 30 wines is about our limit for one day.  If we have more than that number, this first step stretches over multiple days.  I compile the scores into a very high-tech grid (shown below) that I'll use later when putting together possible blends.

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The next morning, we'll sit down with the score sheet and an inventory list to determine how much of each lot we have to move around to specific wines.  We'll begin with three different blends that showcase each of the components in turn.  Below, I've given an example of preliminary blending trials for Esprit de Tablas Blanc:

 

Blend 1

Blend 2

Blend 3

Roussanne

60%

75%

65%

Grenache Blanc

35%

15%

20%

Picpoul Blanc

5%

10%

15%

Keep in mind that within each of those individual varieties (Roussanne, for example), we're making blends.  We blended seven lots of Roussanne to get the base for the Esprit Blanc this year.  Even the varietal wines we produce are a blend of separate and unique lots within the same grape variety.  By making wines this way, it helps us to achieve not only varietal "correctness", but also to help showcase the vintage and make sure the wine is fleshed out from start to finish.

Once again, we'll taste through the wines, but this time rather than absolute scores, we give them rankings in order of preference (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc).  Looking at these rankings, we'll begin another round of blending, building around the elements we liked the most.  We'll continue this process until we have a wine everyone ranks in first place and says "YES!  That's it" and performs an an enthusiastic fist pump.  I've never seen it happen, but I'm almost positive it's just because everyone does it in their head.  Sometimes, the process of deciding takes a day or two.  Sometimes, it takes longer - one year, it took us a week and a half to get a consensus for Esprit Blanc.  That's a lot of days tasting slightly different variations of the same wine.  On the plus side, we got really good at pulling composite samples that year.  Each vintage, while presenting exciting elements, also comes with a whole new set of - shall we say - delightful challenges.

Once we've decided on the wine we're working on, we set aside those lots and focus on the next wine down the sequence. And so forth, until we've made all our blends and decided which varietal wines we'll make for the vintage.

This year, we had the good fortune of being given some outstanding lots to work with.  The 2014 harvest has shown itself as a bit of a tomboy vintage; it has a round, rich, powerful front that gives way to a beautiful lean acidity, lending the wines a feminine edge on the finish.  Blending in years like 2014 is only difficult because you can only use each wine once.  After finalizing the blends, we sit down one last time to taste through the whole vintage lineup.  This is my favorite part of the blending process - tasting through everything as you would in the tasting room and making sure each wine can not only stand on its own, but also set itself apart from each of the other wines.  Each year, one of the members of the Perrin family comes over for some part of the blending.  This year, it wasn't until the final tasting, when François Perrin came to town for a few days and we were able to show him the 2014 vintage as we'd envisioned it.  Tasting your wines through someone else's eyes can be a stressful experience (especially if you're trying to see them from a set of Perrin eyes), but this year, it felt like joy.  Each wine fit attractively and confidently into its specific program - the Patelin wines are charming, the Cotes wines are somehow both jubilant and sophisticated, the Esprit wines are... well, the Esprit wines are absolutely stunning, and the best way I can describe Panoplie is "richly elegant".  Though I think the wine I'm most thrilled with this year is the En Gobelet.  It has an enchanting energy and captivating voluptuousness that I'm dying to share at my table. We've just begun the process of getting these components put together in tank and I'm already excited to hear what you have to say about each of them.

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Mavis, the vineyard dog, helps with the physical blending


A first look at the 2014 white blends, and a vintage assessment

This week, we put together our white blends for 2014:

Blending 2014 whites - after

Typically, our blending weeks follow a consistent pattern. We start by tasting each lot, variety by variety, and giving them grades. [For an overview of our grading system, see this post by my dad from 2012.] This initial phase gives us an overview of the vintage's strengths and weaknesses, helps point out lots that need attention in the cellar, and suggests which lots are of a quality that they should be considered for the Esprit de Tablas.  This year, the white tasting included 4 Viognier lots, 5 Grenache Blanc lots, 2 lots each of Picpoul Blanc and Marsanne, and 10 lots of Roussanne. My notes:

Blending notes - 2014 whites

A good initial test of the vintage is the percentage of lots that receive our top grade (a "1" in this case). Somewhere around 40% is normal for us; this vintage I gave 13 of the 23 lots a "1" grade. The next thing I look at is what percentage of our total gallons of each grape get that top grade, which helps us know what the likely profile of our blends will be, and if there are lots whose friendliness and relative lack of depth suggest they're better suited for the Patelin than for our estate wines. This year, I gave "1" grades to 55% of our Roussanne, 72% of our Grenache Blanc, 23% of our Marsanne, 15% of our Viognier, and 100% of our Picpoul (I rated both of our lots a "1").  We did identify one Viognier lot for declassification into the Patelin Blanc.  The lineup of lots, on the bar on Monday, and below it, our flight of 5 different Grenache Blancs:

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Our next step is to blend the Esprit Blanc.  We typically start from the outside and work our way in.  We tasted blends between 60% and 80% Roussanne, 20% and 40% Grenache Blanc, and 0% and 10% Picpoul.  It took us two days, but we came to the conclusion that as good as the Grenache Blanc and Picpoul were this year (and both were excellent), because of the good acidity on Roussanne -- often a low-acid grape -- we didn't need as much of the others as it might have at first appeared.  We even toyed with the idea of eliminating Picpoul entirely and focusing on the richness of Roussanne and Grenache Blanc, but in the end decided that the tropical fruitiness of Picpoul, which came through appealingly even at just 5% of the final blend, was of value to the finished wine even if the acidity was OK without it.  Our (tentatively) final Esprit Blanc blend: 72% Roussanne, 23% Grenache Blanc, and 5% Picpoul Blanc.

We then turned our focus to the Cotes Blanc, having removed from consideration the lots earmarked for the Esprit Blanc.  This is typically an easier process, because we have fewer options in front of us.  We knew at this point that because we had declassified one Viognier lot to Patelin, we weren't going to make a varietal Viognier.  So, we knew the Viognier base that would form the core of the wine.  Our questions were at that point to decide the relative proportions of the Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne, and over two days, we decided to keep the Roussanne percentage low, both because we want the wine to be different from the Esprit, and because too much Roussanne, added to the rich Viognier base, seemed to make the wines too heavy.  In the end, our chosen blend was 42% Viognier, 30% Grenache Blanc, 23% Marsanne, and 5% Roussanne.

The blending session also made clear that we'll have some knockout varietal wines this year, in pretty decent quantities.  We decided against making a Viognier, but the Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Picpoul Blanc should all be terrific.

This was just the first of three blending weeks on our calendar.  We'll reconvene week-after-next to repeat the process with the red lots, and then welcome Francois Perrin to the vineyard two weeks after that to get his take on everything we think we've decided. But even after just one week, it's clear that the raw materials are exceptional. I asked Neil to summarize his impressions of 2014 at this point, and his answer ("a lot of depth, and great acidity") is about as good a starting point as we could want.


Harvest 2014 Recap: Yields up 5.2% (though still below average); Quality excellent

On Wednesday, October 15th we picked the last batch of Roussanne off of our estate.  And just like that, we're done picking for the year.  It doesn't feel like we're finished, as we're still pressing off bins of reds, the cellar still smells like crush, and the vineyard's colors are still more green than gold -- it is only mid-October, after all -- but there's no more fruit to pick.  From Wednesday:

Last Day of Harvest

As we've progressed through this harvest, we have been comparing it to similar vintages with relatively low yields and high quality, like 2003, 2007 and 2013.  Now that everything is in, we have a chance to look quantitatively and see whether these comparisons have merit.  Of course, there are things that can't be easily measured (think color, or thickness of skins) but knowing how much fruit you have and how ripe it is, overall, gives us a good tool for knowing what the vintage will be like.  And it's not surprising; yields per acre and ripeness at harvest tell you critical things like skin-to-juice and sugar-to-acid ratios.

Somewhat to our surprise, given that we're in our third year of drought, yields were on average actually up a little from 2013. For our principal grapes:

Grape2013 Yields (tons)2014 Yields (tons)% Change
Viognier 16.7 11.4 -31.7%
Marsanne 8.2 9.9 +20.7%
Grenache Blanc 25.4 31.9 +25.6%
Picpoul Blanc 5.2 7.5 +44.2%
Vermentino 15.1 17.3 +14.6%
Roussanne 44.5 42.8 -3.8%
Total Whites 115.1 120.8
+5.0%
Grenache 48.7 50.7 +4.1%
Syrah 32.5 38.1 +17.2%
Mourvedre 57.3 52.3 -8.7%
Tannat 12.3 15.4 +25.2%
Counoise 13.9 17.0 +22.3%
Total Reds 164.7 173.5
5.4%
Total 279.8 294.3 +5.2%

Most varieties are up a bit, with the exceptions of Mourvedre and Roussanne, our two latest-ripening varieties, and the two grapes most susceptible to late-season stress-related devigoration.  So, it's perhaps unsurprising that both showed declines in this dry year.  The third grape to see a decline (Viognier) came from a much more discrete cause: we had several nights of break-ins by wild pigs toward the beginning of harvest, and they of course went straight for Viognier, the ripest (read: earliest-ripening) grape.

Overall yields ended up at 2.78 tons per acre, which is still just below our ten-year average of 2.9 tons per acre.  Other years in which we've seen yields between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre have included 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, and 2013, all of which have been excellent and have been aging very well.

Looking at average sugars and pH at harvest gives a quick way of measuring a year's ripeness.  Since 2007:

YearAvg. SugarsAvg. pH
2007 24.42 3.67
2008 23.87 3.64
2009 23.42 3.69
2010 22.68 3.51
2011 22.39 3.50
2012 22.83 3.65
2013 22.90 3.63
2014 23.18 3.59

Both of these measures show the subtle differences between 2014 and a year like 2013, corroborating what we noticed: that the level of lushness this year (our highest average sugars since 2009) was counterbalanced by good acids (better than all our recent vintages except the historically cool 2010 and 2011 vintages).  It also suggests that the narrative we're hearing from many California appellations -- that acids were extremely low this year, requiring significant intervention in the cellar -- didn't hold true for us.  Finally, it's a good indication that we were able to keep up with the pressure in mid-September, when so much of the vineyard seemed like it was ready, and that we got fruit off the vine while it still maintained natural freshness.

In character, we see many similarities to 2013, with the characteristic dark color and intense flavors of a low-yielding vintage, but with a little more overt fruit than the more savory 2013s.  Fans of the lusher style our wines featured in the 2007-2009 period will likely find many similarities.  Clusters and berries were very small, which means that skin-to-juice ratios were high on our red grapes.  My dad holds up a cluster each of (from left) Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre from late-September, when all three were arriving in the cellar simultaneously:

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Of course, it's early to make predictions on flavors, so stay tuned in the spring, when we'll dive into the vintage's character in preparation for our blending trials.

At 53 days between its August 23rd beginning and its October 15th conclusion, this harvest clocks as a bit shorter than average (our 10-year average is 56 days) and our finish was one of our earliest on record, preceded this century only by last year's October 7th end.  It joins 2013 as our only vintages where we finished harvesting before the Paso Robles Harvest Wine Weekend.

Our main challenge, as things finished up, was Roussanne, and it's with this notoriously finicky grape that I think the meticulous work of our vineyard team will show the most.  Roussanne, even in the best of conditions, tends to ripen unevenly, requiring that we go through each block multiple times to pick what's ripe and give the other clusters some more time to mature.  Roussanne is also the variety most prone to stress-related devigoration, where the leaves lose chlorophyll and ripening slows toward the end of harvest.  Not every vine is affected to the same degree, so you can have mostly-green vines next to those that are largely yellow, with predictably faster ripening on the greener vines.  In this exceptionally stressful year, we knew we would have to be willing to go back repeatedly through our Roussanne blocks if we hoped to get most of the fruit harvested in good condition.  But even by Roussanne's normal standards, this year was a slog.  As an example, we made a first pass through the Roussanne block we still call our "New Hill" (since it was planted in 2000 rather than 1995-1997) on September 4th.  We made our next passes on September 18th and October 2nd.  Still, nearly half the fruit remained.  We went through again on October 7th, and a final pick -- our last pick of the harvest -- on October 16th. It's a good thing Roussanne is so rewarding in the cellar.  If it weren't, no one would deal with its quirks. The culprit, looking deceptively placid in early October:

Roussanne mid-September 2

 

And while we're early to be done with harvest, the cooler nights and the shorter days are beginning to bring out the fall colors in the vineyard.  I take a photo from this vantage point nearly every year because it shows two grapes that both color up in the fall: Tannat, in the foreground, and Syrah, on the hillside behind.

Fall foliage 2

Now that we're done with picking, we're able to get our animal herd back into the vineyard.  They can clean up any second crop clusters we left behind, as well as start getting some natural fertilizer into the soil in advance of what we're hoping will be a wet winter.  Dottie, one of our guard donkeys, is enjoying a snack of Marsanne before it goes dormant: 

Dottie back in the vineyard

And as for that rain, we're feeling hopeful that the series of Pacific fronts that have blown through Paso Robles over the last two weeks -- dry though they were, this early in the season -- bode well for winter. In many years, it's still hot and summer-like in mid-October.  These last two weeks have felt like fall.  If that promise carries through to real rain, we'll all have reason to celebrate.


Near-End-of-Harvest Assessment: A Furious September, Moderate Yields, Quality High

In the vineyard, things are starting to look genuinely fall-like:

Fall foliage 2

And in keeping with the visuals of the season, we're on the tail end of our harvest craziness, something like 85% done.  As of the beginning of this week, we'd harvested 386 tons: 237 from our estate and another 149 for the Patelin.  What was left was one good block of Mourvedre (picked today), scraps of the other reds (all of which should be cleaned up by the end of this week), our three small blocks of Tannat (likely to be harvested this and next week), and a good chunk of Roussanne (which will likely be picked in waves into the middle of October; more on that later). 

The pace at which we harvested fruit off our estate in September was remarkable.  After a relatively slow beginning to harvest (which I discussed on the blog) things picked up serious steam the first week of September, and are only now starting to slow down. It's perhaps easiest to look at it graphically, showing tons of fruit, estate and Patelin, per week:

Harvest 2014 by week

In many ways, this vintage is shaping up like 2013: it's been a warm year without many heat spikes, we've picked 10 days or 2 weeks early on average, it's a slightly below-average vintage for yields, and looks very high for quality.  But unlike 2013, our shortest harvest in a decade, we're likely going to see a more normal full two months between the first and last fruit off our estate.  Still, August's slow beginning and October's gradual taper will together account for less than 20% of the harvest, meaning our September peak was one of our busiest periods ever. How busy? The busiest week of 2013 saw us bring in 58 tons off of our estate.  Even in 2012, our largest crush ever, no week ever reached the 79 tons we harvested the week of September 15th.  And the week of September 8th had already filled the cellar with 70 new tons of fruit.

So, it's not surprising that we felt buried by grapes.  We've managed to fit everything into the cellar (more of a challenge than you'd think, given that we typically use a fermentation tank for 5 or 6 sequential lots at harvest -- leaving each lot in the fermenter for some 10 days -- and having nearly all our fruit come in during a 30-day sprint effectively halves our fermentation space).  Between the couple of new upright wooden tanks we added last year and a few open-top stainless steel fermenters we hadn't used in a few harvests, we've made it work.  The cellar, though, is as full of different fermentation tanks as I've ever seen it:

Full cellar

Yields look very similar to last year.  Of the non-Roussanne whites, we've harvested 68.7 tons.  Last year saw us bring in 65.4 tons.  Of the Rhone reds, at week's beginning we'd brought in 134.5 tons.  Last year we finished up with 151.5, but we estimate we've got another dozen tons or so that will trickle in, meaning we'll end up very close to last year's totals.  Maybe up a touch in Syrah and Counoise, and down slightly in Mourvedre and Grenache. 

The real question for us is Roussanne.  This always-challenging grape is being difficult even by its standards this year.  We've gone through our principal Roussanne blocks twice already, picking just the ripe clusters, netting a little over 10 tons.  We have another selective pick scheduled for tomorrow, and are expecting another 4 tons or so.  Still, we're a long way from done.  Last year, we harvested 44 tons of Roussanne, accounting for about 40% of our white production.  This year, there are a higher than normal number of Roussanne vines that are starting to shut down due to stress, which means that the clusters they carry are ripening more and more slowly.  We think that we'll still be able to harvest much (most?) of what's out there, but assuming that all of it will come in seems unreasonably optimistic.  We're hoping for 30 tons, total.  It seems unfair that the Roussanne looks as nice as it does on the vines, taunting us with its amber beauty despite not being ripe: 

Roussanne mid-September

So, we wait on Roussanne, and on Tannat, which is looking good but still mostly not quite there.  The colors of its foliage, though, suggest that the time is near: 

Tannat on the vine

In terms of quality, we continue to be excited by what we're seeing.  The berries seem unusually small, the flavors and colors correspondingly intense.  The grapes are a bit riper than they've been the last few years, but in good balance.  It's looking (dare I say it) a lot like 2007.

And that has to be a good thing.


Drying Mourvedre Grapes for Vin de Paille "Sacrérouge"

We don't make our vin de paille dessert wines every year.  First, the grapes need to be in great shape before they're put on the straw, or they rot rather than drying, making some vintages unsuitable for the technique.  Second, Americans don't buy large quantities of sweet wines, so we don't need to make that much.  (Perhaps I should more accurately say that while many Americans like their dry wines with some sweetness they don't buy large quantities of truly sweet wines.)  And third, given that the setup and winemaking are pretty labor-intensive and that the wines age effortlessly, more wine less-often gives us efficiency.

So, it's exciting that today we're beginning the process of making our first Vin de Paille  "Sacrérouge" since 2010. The process is interesting, I think.  The grapes (in this case, Mourvedre) are harvested into picking baskets, but not then dumped into half-ton bins for transport, because the weight of the grapes on top is enough to bruise the grapes on the bottom and encourage rot.  Instead, the baskets are carried by hand -- or loaded onto the back of a flatbed and driven -- down to our greenhouse:

Sacrerouge bins

Then, they're laid out on the straw, as demonstrated by Juan Gomez below:

Sacrerouge

The grapes will spend two or three weeks on the straw, dehydrating gradually in the greenhouse heat, until they're semi-raisined, at which point we'll pick them back up and transport them to the winery for foot-crushing (they're too dense at this point to run through a de-stemmer or to get a punch-down tool through) and eventual fermentation.  If you're wondering why these wines are usually expensive, this makes three times that they have to be handled plus some pretty labor-intensive daily cellar work.  But the reward is worth it: a sweet wine that has freshness, isn't overly alcoholic (reds typically in the 13% range, whites in the 9%-10% range), and has concentrated minerality and varietal character, not just sweetness.  But that's still several weeks away.  For now, we'll be watching the drying grapes as we finish the rest of harvest.  One more photo, for those of you interested.  One of our greenhouse benches is nearly full, with another to go:

Sacrerouge on benches

If you're interested in more technical explanation of how the vin de paille process works compared to other common techniques for making sweet wines, or photos of the grapes further along in their drying, check out my blog post from 2010: Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed.


Harvest 2014 at the Midway Point: Very Like 2013, which is a Good Thing

We finally feel like we're in the middle of harvest.  Every day brings a mix of new fruit coming in, sample teams going out, both presses running as we press off fermented red lots and newly-harvested whites, winemakers on the sorting table and de-stemmer processing newly-harvested reds, and even the first outline of our rosés taking shape.  The harvest chalkboard is filling up!

Chalkboard 9.11

Happily, for our sequencing at least, the arrival of Patelin lots via truck have slowed to a trickle.  You can see in the chalkboard: the top of the board has mostly blue lots, indicating fruit from Patelin vineyards, while the bottom is mostly white, which denotes estate fruit.  It has been great not to have to worry about too much of our Patelin harvest once our estate fruit started coming in in earnest.  Here's some of what we know, so far:

The Patelin is mostly done.
We've received 126 tons of fruit for Patelin: 53 tons of white (mostly Grenache Blanc and Viognier), 45 tons of red (mostly Syrah, with a little Grenache), and 28 tons of Grenache that we've direct-pressed to make the base of the Patelin Rosé.  We're expecting another 25 or so tons of red, mostly Grenache and Mourvedre, and a few more tons of Mourvedre for the Patelin Rosé.

Harvest off our estate vineyard is heating up.
So far, four grapes are done.  The Haas Vineyard Pinot -- often an outlier -- was the first, on 9/3.  We completed our harvest of Viognier on 9/9 and Vermentino on 9/11, and picked our last Grenache Blanc this morning.  We're probably 80% of the way through Syrah, 40% through Grenache Noir, 25% through Counoise, 15% through Roussanne and Mourvedre, and are yet to start Marsanne (coming in tomorrow), Tannat, or Picpoul.  Still, we expect the year to end with Roussanne and Mourvedre, as usual.  Overall, we figure we're maybe 40% done with our estate, and expect to hit the halfway mark around the end of the week. This week has been the beginning of a Grenache onslaught.  It looks super: intensely colored, with beautiful flavors.

Grenache

The fruit that's still out looks great, too. 
A few photos.  First, Roussanne, starting to show the classic russet tint that gives the grape its name:

Roussanne on Vine 9-12

Next, Mourvedre, still fully inflated, sheltering under its canopy, and likely a couple of weeks away from coming in:

Mourvedre on Vine 9-12

Overall, the vineyard doesn't appear to be struggling as much as we thought it would given how dry it's been.  Sure, Roussanne is looking ragged, but it always does this time of year.  The Viognier made it, barely.  Mourvedre, which also often looks pretty haggard by the time it's picked, is holding up pretty well, as are Grenache and Grenache Blanc, and Counoise.

An early harvest? Not so much.
For all our worries that this would be an exceptionally early harvest, it turns out we're not actually ahead of last year's pace. Looking at the grapes that are done, we finished Viognier and Vermentino roughly a week later this year than last, the Haas Pinot at the same time, and Grenache Blanc one day earlier this year.  As of September 13th, 2013, we'd harvested 119 tons off our estate.  This year, it was 110 tons at the same date.

The cellar is a moving three-dimensional puzzle that needs a new solution each day.
The challenges in the cellar are logistical: how do we make enough of the right kind of space for the fruit that's coming in.  This means pressing off lots that have reached the extraction levels we want (typically about 10 days after harvest) and moving those lots into barrels, cleaning those tanks and then getting them ready to refill with new juice.

We've begun the process of assembling the Dianthus Rosé by bleeding off a tank of Counoise 24 hours post-harvest.  A 40-second video takes you through how it's done:

Yields look similar to 2013.
Of the grapes we've finished harvesting, Vermentino's yield is up about 10%, Grenache Blanc nearly identical, and Viognier's down 30% (largely due to wild pig depredation).  It looks like Syrah totals will be very similar to last year.  The grapes we're thinking might be lighter are Roussanne (which seems to be struggling more than most grapes due to the drought) and Grenache (whose berries and clusters seem small this year; check out the photo below). 

Grenache cluster in JCH hand

But overall, we don't expect big yield differences from 2013. Since we consider last year's yields of 2.66 tons/acre to be characteristic of our best vintages, having similar results this year would be just fine with us.  And the weather seems to be continuing to cooperate, with hot-but-not-scorching spells broken by stretches of cool weather that give us a chance to catch back up.  Fitting the pattern, it was hot over the weekend, but is forecast to cool down this week.  Even so, it looks like we've got maybe another month of harvest, at the outside.

So, looking ahead, that el nino they're now not forecasting for this winter?  It can arrive any time after October 15th.  If any of you have any pull with the weather gods, that is.


Harvest 2014 slowed with a cool second half of August, but is picking up speed

It often happens in harvest that you get your first burst of fruit and then enter a lull, where it seems like half your vineyard is sitting there almost-but-not-quite ready.  Because you're into the routine of daily punch-downs, and you've broken out your harvest equipment, it seems like you should be in the full swing of harvest, but when you look back at the totals you realize you were really in a holding pattern.  That was our story for the second half of August.

That story ends today.

First, a quick recap of what we've seen the past two weeks.  Our first few days, where we welcomed 30 tons of Patelin fruit between August 13th and 15th, were busy indeed.  But the next two weeks saw a slower pace, with another 47 tons of Patelin fruit spread over the period.  This included 8 more tons of Grenache Blanc and 12 more tons of Viognier for Patelin Blanc, 12 more tons of Syrah for Patelin, and 15 tons of Grenache Noir for the Patelin Rosé.  We've also been guiding the early red lots through their fermentations, keeping the skins and juice mixed by pumping them over (or in some cases, using compressed air to inundate the cap of skins) twice a day:

PumpOver Syrah

More exciting, we saw our first harvest off our estate, with 2.8 tons of Viognier on August 23rd and another 2.8 tons two days later.  We also made a first pass through the Pinot Noir at the Haas Vineyard, for our Full Circle:

Pinot in bins

And, we've been out in the vineyard every day, taking samples and assessing whether or not blocks are ready:

Sample buckets

The pause during the second half of August was not surprising, in retrospect, because it turned out to be quite cool for us, historically.  Most days topped out in the 70's or low 80's.  Between August 15th and August 31st we accumulated just 304 degree hours (a common agricultural measurement of heat), 20% less than either 2012 or 2013 and 5% cooler even than the cool 2011 and 2010 harvests.

That cool weather ended over the Labor Day weekend, with five days topping 90, and the vineyard has responded as you would expect.  Samples we took yesterday suggested that Viognier, Vermentino, Syrah and even one block of Mourvedre were ready to pick, and we're now entering the period where sequencing what gets picked and pressed, and in what order, becomes a daily challenge.  Knowing this fruit was coming, we pressed off four upright tanks of Syrah yesterday, so they're ready and waiting for the new arrivals:

Emptied upright

We've already run two press loads of Vermentino today, and will try to squeeze in (pun intended) two more of Viognier.  We've got another picking of Pinot Noir on the way, and will in all likelihood see close to 100 tons this week alone.

Happily, the heat has already moderated (forecast high for today: upper 80's) and we're supposed to have another cool week this week.  This will give us a chance to catch up, and slow down the vineyard's progress a touch.

In terms of character, the grapes look very much like they did last year: intense yet balanced, with thick skins and dark color, moderate sugar levels, and good acidity.  So far, so good.


Harvest 2014 begins: How our earliest-ever start also has longer-than-average hangtime

This Wednesday, August 13th, we welcomed sixteen tons of Syrah into our cellar, marking the beginning of the 2014 harvest.  These bins were from Estrella Farms, in the warm heartland of the Paso Robles AVA, and will form the juicy core of our Patelin de Tablas.  The fruit looked terrific, and the numbers were textbook: 23.5° Brix and 3.39pH.

002

The next day, we got four more tons of Estrella syrah and our first white: a little over seven tons of Grenache Blanc from Coyote Moon Vineyard, on a vineyard that we had grafted over to Grenache Blanc specifically for the Patelin Blanc up near the town of San Miguel.  This fruit looked great too, with intense flavors, modest sugar levels and great acidity: 21° Brix and 3.38 pH.

Grenache Blanc in bins

The two locations have in common that they are from areas of the AVA that are on the warmer side.  We think we're still a week away from harvesting anything off of our estate vineyard.  For our planning in the cellar, it's great that we're seeing this slug of fruit before anything else.  The roughly 30 tons of fruit is about 20% of what we're expecting for our Patelin, and to have it already safely put away before we're also dealing with the much more complicated harvest off our estate is a gift.  It also allows us to break in our wooden upright tanks and start building the population of native yeasts in our cellar.

This mid-August beginning feels early, but it's not unprecedented.  Yes, August 13th is the earliest that we've ever had fruit in the cellar, but it's only one day earlier than 1997, when the lot of estate Syrah that we harvested on August 14th was the first fruit we crushed in our newly-built winery.  Given that the fruit we've welcomed so far this year comes from warmer parts of Paso, I'm not sure even that we'll break our modern record for our earliest picking off our estate, August 23rd in 2004.

More than the calendar date when we start harvesting, what we look at as important is the length of the ripening cycle, and of course the balance and intensity of the fruit.  Because we saw such an early budbreak this year (two and a half weeks earlier than average) an estate harvest that begins ten days earlier than average, as this one appears poised to, actually gives us hang time about a week longer than normal.  And the fruit conditions that we're seeing so far bear this out: the fruit is intensely colored and perfumed, with beautiful deep flavors and acids exactly where we'd like to see them.

So, it's early yet.  But we couldn't ask for a better beginning.